Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014, Bioware)

dai

This is a short review for a very long game.

I spent approximately one hundred hours playing this game — exploring fen and mountain, slaying (endangered) dragons, talking to the members of my inner circle, reading backstory text logs, tweaking my party’s gear and abilities, trying to stop demons from pouring into the physical world — an amount of time I rarely come anywhere near in single player games.

I look back at all those hours now and I can barely explain what had me so enthralled. DAI subscribes to the Ubisoft/Assassin Creed gameplay trend of making everything a collectible or completionist checklist. A fair portion of my time spent was collecting magical shards, claiming landmarks for the inquisition, collecting random items for towns/countryfolk for minimal reward. In a word: busywork.

The plot does not bear up under scrutiny. The pacing is really awkward. You’re consistently foiling the one-dimensional villain and the ‘final’ battle is just putting him out of his misery, not stopping any pressing threat. The dialogue is undeniably goofy, often. The game tries to make single deaths a big deal — there’s plot beats based on revealing my buddies have murder in their past. Yet, this happened after I got an achievement for “kill 2500 enemies”, probably half of which were human bandits and soldiers. If you took all these story elements together and put them into a novel, I wouldn’t read it unless you paid me.

The combat and mechanics are fun but feature a major lack of balance. The designers tried to eliminate an antiquated mode of RPG combat — dedicated healers to reverse damage done by the player’s enemies. But in doing so, they just put more emphasis on a different antiquated RPG mechanic: the ‘tank’, or warrior who must soak up all the damage and keep enemies off the rest of the more fragile party members. Even on the hardest difficulty, fighting the hardest enemy (dragons), my whole group would die except my unkillable warrior who would slowly whittle down the dragon to death.

The game was also supremely buggy and forced me to reload several times; I missed one plot point because the major character involved disappeared and the game would show a blank wall and silence when she was supposed to be speaking.

And yet, no matter how nitpicky or damning I can write about this game, I enjoyed my time immensely. I was entranced. I thought about it at work when I wasn’t playing it.

I don’t know. Video games are weird.

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Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

almanacThere was not, and there never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans’ own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. Because stolen land never had clear title.

Leslie Marmon Silko is pissed. Five hundred years of outrage. The colonization of the Americas goes beyond mere colonialism into the whites’ insatiable thirst for more and more resources, clawing the earth apart in search of more riches to deplete. The spirits are pissed too. At the destructive whites and at the native people who do not honor them*. Ten thousands years of Native American ancestors ready to unleash their sorrow and anguish in terms of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, you name it.

Which brings me to the plot. There’s a war coming. The details are hazy, and its many tellings are varied and contradictory, but the thrust of all prophecies is clear: at some undetermined point in the future, all the white people in the Americas will be swept away and its native peoples will reclaim the land.

Note: The book is like 800 pages and the war never happens.

This is a story of vignettes, of interlocking stories and characters. A coked out young mother searching for her child, twin Indian sisters (one a talk show personality who can find missing people, but only if they are dead; the other subtly declaring war on the US government in part by stockpiling an enormous amount of guns), an old, contemplative border smuggler gone soft, a mobster with a cadre of assassins and his real estate tycoon wife building water-strewn Venice in Arizona, a Native man refusing his past and obsessed with bulletproof vests, another man kicked out of his tribal lands after inadvertently allowing a Hollywood crew to film his peoples’ sacred stone snake…

The story of a character will unfold, we’ll get in their head and see their story, and then after a few sub-chapters, the story will swap to a different character the first one knew, then afterwards, another character that that character knew, and so on, deeper and deeper until the chain starts again. All lives are entwined, mostly in Tucson, Arizona and south of the border, but the story crisscrosses all over the US. They are marginalized peoples. Mexican and Native Americans. Black power vets looking to South African independence as guidance. The white people have some outsider qualities — brain damaged as a youth or a Vietnam war vet or a woman…

The characters are largely reprehensible, but some are much worse than others and the book slides into dangerous group-identity territory with its cadre of women-hating, gay sadists. (The only vaguely emphatic gay character kills himself.) There’s detailed descriptions of snuff films, of bestiality, of child abuse. With the length of the novel, this can get a little tiring; you’ll probably feel a little worn out. The extreme weight of all these terrible people gets heavy, maybe backbreaking for some.

I eat these kind of books up, when the characters are written well and engaging; everything from Game of Thrones to Catch 22. I love a fat, complex, multifaceted story. At times, Almanac reminds me of narratives like Pulp Fiction or Infinite Jest, but being written in 1991, it predates both. The style reminds me of Joan Didion. Not just because one of the main characters is a Californian white woman, with abortion in her past and lost child drama in her present, spinning out of control. Sentences are typically short and complete. There is repetition. Angles will change mid paragraph. It’s smooth and palatable and difficult content aside, it’s easy to get lost in.

 

*”The spirits allow you no rest. The spirits say die fighting the invaders or die drunk.”

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Used Bookstores of Hawaii

hawaiibooks2
Pictured left: Makalawena Beach in Kona, Big Island, Hawaii. Requires a drive in a (rental) car down a roughshod road cut through a lava field and subsequent 20 minute hike through lava field. Just ‘secret’ and adventurous enough to stay relatively uncrowded and foster a comradely wink among attendees. Pictured right: the pile of books we purchased on Big Island
)

I have become a connoisseur of city used-bookstores. Or, if ‘connoisseur’ denotes a level expertise I don’t actually possess — call me a wide-eyed explorer, an amateur archaeologist, an enthusiast. Big city standbys like Powell’s in Portland, OR, a veritable castle of books. Or small city eccentricities, like the naval/seafaring collection of a bookstore on the island of Alameda, CA. I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the suburbs and naturally a bookstore was the massive Barnes and Noble or Borders (R.I.P.) in the nearest giant mall. 3 floors of glossy bestsellers, new releases, and tables piled with gift suggestions that nowadays I only see every holiday season when I am back home on the east coast and need to buy several family members Christmas presents.

Also, when I was a child, vacations were synonymous with book purchases. I’d whine incessantly until my parents brought me to a bookstore (they’d give in only because it was a special occasion, like a birthday or holiday). Then I’d spend most of the time away, usually camping in New Hampshire or Maine, reading hundreds or thousands of pages. It’s weird to think now that what prevented me from reading then was not time to read but availability of new books.

These two factors tie adult vacations closely with buying books. I was disappointed the first time I went bookstore hunting in Hawaii. Kauai, despite all its other very high qualities, has one lame bookstore and I only bought a book because I felt I had to. It was Life of Pi and I didn’t even like it. So I was wary on my return trip, this time to Big Island (a birthday present from my amazing wife).

Big Island has used bookstores everywhere. Big ones, small ones, good ones, bad ones, weird ones comprised entirely of beat up mass market editions. It’s a high-use swap culture, judging by how well-used the books are and the fact that there’s several copies of books that just came out that aren’t even in softcover yet; This makes an easy way to get cheap hardcovers of books I wouldn’t have read for years, or possibly forgotten about (in this case, Emily St. John Mandel’s much heralded Station Eleven). We bought most of our books from the sister stores Kona Bay Books and Hilo Bay Books, giant warehouses that look like aircraft hangers, converted to shelf upon shelf of books. The smell upon entry is unmistakable. They’re the kind of store that still have entire sections dedicated to mystery or suspense and have sci-fi sections that are bigger than most normal stores’ fiction sections.

A short list of the types of books only to be unearthed in musty, used book stores:

  • The book you had been planning to buy forever but only just now picked up due to its amazing cover (seen here as the 1981 version of The War of the End of the World. Something between a telenovela and Jesus Christ Superstar)
  • The book that is so ancient and tattered that it’s list price is less than its present-day used book price (My $2 purchase of the originally 35cent The Turn of the Screw)
  • The book you had never heard of by one of your favorite authors (The Cave by Jose Saramago)
  • The book that honestly shouldn’t have been this hard to find (A Void by Georges Perec — seriously been looking for this for months, despite it being his most well known book)

Incidentally I only ever seem to come home with these enormous book caches when I am already in the middle of reading a massive novel (The Almanac of the Dead in this case — it’s really good, but also 800 pages). Thus putting off the choice of choosing which of these gems I can even start.

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The great fire of London [a novel of interpolations and bifurcations] by Jacques Roubaud

great fire of londonIn his youth, Jacques Roubaud had a dream that changed his life. The dream, which was honestly little more than him getting off a train in London and observing the passerby, revealed the following:

  • He must write a novel, titled The Great Fire of London.
  • He must compose an extensive poetry project, which he called the Project.
  • The novel and the poetry must be intertwined completely.
  • The poetry Project must also be a math project (Roubad’s second career was mathematician)
  • The essence of the dream must be realized through the above (by the way: the dream included London but no fire nor poetry; it was a pretty unremarkable dream to impart such a grand vision)

Jacques never wrote the book.

He waffled over its complexity for thirty years, performed endless research on ancient troubadours and the evolution of language. Made lists, excuses.Then his wife suddenly died; He declared the completion of the Project & The Great Fire of London impossible. Following three years of total bereavement — non-being as he terms it —  he started writing again.  He adopted an inflexible regimen of waking up around 3am (on a very precise schedule based on seasonal light) and writing in the same small notebook in the same black ink whilst refusing to ever go back and edit.The result was the book I actually read, not The Great Fire of London but instead: The great fire of London. (A capitalization distinction the publisher refused to acknowledge on the cover of the book)

So here we are, meet the great fire of London, the first book since The Dictionary of the Khazars that forced me to use three bookmarks.

That is why every path that opens up but is not immediately followed, nor forever abandoned, will be signaled in the text, unobtrusively, with directions that allow it be found again somewhere in the book, a book which like all others however can be read sequentially, for themselves. The reader, armed with eyes and patience, if he’s the sort who isn’t too put off by the more or less simultaneous exploration of divergent branches (a simple extension moreover of silent skipping with your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, from one page to another (an ascending movement this time), not to mention the concurrent reading of several books, or of notes, of glosses…), will be able, theoretically, to make a more varied, less “pedestrian” measure of the chaotic landscape of this novel.

What Roubaud is getting at here is this: There’s parts of the main ‘story’ that he absolutely wants to tell you about, but are a digression or distraction. He numbers these sections and that number corresponds to a section in the back of the book where he elaborates on the point (sort of like Infinite Jest’s endnotes). He might briefly mention his morning routine involving a bakery stop, but leave his obsessive list of requirements for the perfect croissant for the corresponding segment at the end of the book. He labels these diversions the interpolations of the title.

The second innovation is the bifurcation. What’s a bifurcation? At points where Roubaud absolutely could not decide which direction to take the novel, he went both ways. If a section of the main story has a number prefaced by a ‘b’, there is a bifurcation at the end of the book where he writes the chapter in the alternate flow he wanted to take.

I really like the idea of this book. Way more than actually reading it. The structure is fantastic; the actual content is a hodgepodge of all kinds of nonsense. Autobiographical episodes of his life, his family, his childhood. Long descriptions of rooms, photos. His love of England, love of reading, walking, swimming. Ruminations on poetry, math. Some of it is quite good — it’s fascinating reading Roubaud describe the making of jelly from a fruit(?) I’ve never even heard of, wisdom from old Provencal France. But it’s disordered and does not hold together. Some of the sections get abstract or theoretical and I appreciated them more than I actually enjoyed reading them. Worse, there is an interminable chapter where Roubaud pontificates on the mechanics of the how the novel, project, and dream all held together, how he would have written The Great Fire of London and the Project if he had actually written them. Larges swathes of it are borderline incomprehensible:

The novel would contain mysteries, while also being told with mystery. These are not the same thing. In the appearances of mystery, there would be the mystery of its form. The mystery of its form would bear a substantial relationship to the Project’s riddle, most particularly to that aspect of the riddle identified with reflexivity; the Project, in itself, a riddling presence.The mystery of the project-riddle’s manifestation as a novel would assume a public form. It would be medieval monstration. The fiction would move through the necessary “variations” of narration and description. The mystery of the ‘with mystery” implied numerals and “numberings”.

Imagine fifty dense pages of that!

Jacques also has this hilarious affectation w/r/t the english language. He’s admits he’s an anglophobe and is in love with England; but any reference to english or England must come with a follow-up clarification that he means english-english and not american-english, usually with an anecdote to show how inferior or soulless the american version is. I got so used to this that, late in the book, when he’s describing how much he loves english parks, I already knew he was going to write something negative about how little he liked Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And lo’ and behold, the impugnment shortly followed. Blech, give me the dirt and chaos of GGP over highly manicured, sanitized english lawns that you cannot even step foot on any day.

Anyway, I really liked this quote so I’ll end here (topic is reading):

My passion is as old as myself, that is, as the self that counts and walks and remembers. All these things exist on a more or less contemporary plane (viewed from the distance of time where I am today). At every moment of the past I see books: books open and overturned in the grass, books piled near a bed; books on a table, shelves, in school bags, in plastic bags, in suitcases; books in buses, trains, subways, planes. Every picture of my surrounding world contains at least one book. The world teems with a plurality of books, books being read.

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Dragon Age II (2011, Bioware)

da2

I loved the first Dragon Age. I avoided the second. When it was released, all I heard about it was that it was a rushed, overwrought, poorly developed mess.

Now I’ve played it.

And it is an incredibly rushed, somewhat overwrought, occasionally poorly developed mess. But, it’s a mess with heart. A mess with some great ideas. It’s a jumbled ride that simultaneously sheds RPG standard cliches and standbys and innovates, while being rushed out so quickly that half the ‘dungeons’ are the same repeats of the same exact drab terrain. It’s almost comic when you enter the same exact map of a warehouse or cave as you just did fifteen minutes earlier somewhere else in the world except some passages that were previously sealed are now open for you and some rooms that were accessible before are now blocked. Sometimes there is no pretense — you are just asked to go to the same exact portion of the world you just visited.

But, but, but. It does many interesting things. To wit, the premise —

Due to the events of the first Dragon Age (a monstrous darkspawn invasion (see: Lord of the Ring orcs) sweeping across fantasyland), the Hawke family flees their endangered home to their ancestral city of Kirkwall. Kirkwall lies in a part of the world called the Free Marches, a collection of city states largely untouched by the monster party rockin’ across the land. The entirety of DA 2 takes place inside Kirkwall and its environs. As the protagonist (simply called ‘Hawke’), you and your family arrive to the city penniless with the aim of improving your clan’s lot in life.

With the vast majority of RPGs, or honestly any kind of video game, focusing on saving the whole damn world, being the chosen one, whatever, the small scale was incredibly welcome and kind of novel. Your first major quest series is funding an expedition to a subterranean treasure trove (naturally full of monsters) with a host of greedy dwarves. The in-game timeline shifts between major story arcs by 3-5 years and while the scale of conflict increases, it never goes beyond Kirkwall. You’re not trying to save the world — you’re trying to stay alive, create wealth, and later stop your home city from eating itself.

But, like basically everything else in this fantastical imbroglio: Any good idea is coupled with some mystifying and sloppy implementation or major detraction. Kirkwall is uninspired beyond belief. The neighborhoods are literally named ‘Hightown’, ‘Lowtown’, ‘Darktown’, and ‘The Docks’. They’re almost entirely without distinguishing landmarks nor do they make cohesive sense as a place of residence and trade. Despite the fact that several years pass between chapters, nothing in the city changes. All of the major characters and random townspeople stay stationary, the merchants spout the same nonsense. The most egregious example — you kick a large foreign force out of the city in act II that had occupied half of ‘The Docks’. 3+ years later in act III, the area these guys were in is blocked off and empty and the docks are even more pointless.

Further examples of this game’s split personality:

The combat is honestly fun. It’s an improvement over the stuttery pace of the original, which was too married to older RPG combat systems. DA2 is fast, the abilities are interesting, and while it’s mildly silly that rogues are teleporting ninjas, the whole of it ties together to make difficult battles visceral and satisfying, while still strategic if you choose to micromanage your party’s tactics. The specializations you can customize for Hawke and companions change the way they play in noticeable ways and are not just a variation of +1 damage or -1 armor when you press X.

Again, the dark mirror — the combat is indeed fun but there is like 3 different types of enemies to actually engage in fisticuffs with. Melee guy (whether it be a bandit or a demon, they act the same), archer, wizard, and a handful of special demons with slight ability changes. OK, so like 5. I’ve killed enough bandits to depopulate a small country. They also just arrive in waves at random intervals, dropping in a poof of smoke (just kidding, no smoke, just pop-in). It was downright innovative when I played a downloadable chapter where enemy archers actually utilized high ground to shoot at my crew.

The good: the characters you can recruit to join your party are fairly well characterized, and rather than just choosing dialogue options that the character most wants to hear to gain their approval, DA2 rewards either befriending them or making them a ‘rival’ by constantly shitting on their dumb ideas. Like I did with Fenris, an elf once enslaved in a nation run by mages. Every time he went off on how mages should be imprisoned, killed whatever, I told him how wrong he was. Or if he was in my party while I helped some mages,  he had some smartass comment or angry outburst ready. By the end of the game, he was maxed out on the ‘rival’ end of the buddy spectrum; he stuck around because he respected Hawke but he was angry all the time and it fed into his actions and the way some plot events play out. I want to call this feature out specifically because I have read that in DA3, this gets thrown out the window, and party member interactions regress to ‘tell them what they want to hear’.

The bad: Hmm, this part is actually kind of solid. My only complaint is that it is sort of fluff, and has little impact even when the lynchpin of the catastrophic third act involves one of your party members making a monumentally stupid decision that you cannot affect at all.

OK, maybe I’m a sap or have low standards*. Maybe I’m enabling large corporations to vomit out half-finished work while I willingly line up to hand out money. But I enjoyed it a great deal.


*It’s not true!

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Occultation and other stories by Laird Barron

occultSome horror stories are character driven — the interpersonal drama is as important and interesting as the creepshow. Others rely heavily on mechanics of the horrorstuff — the characters are just vehicles to drive us from one slavering monster to the next abandoned mountain cabin. The stories of Occultation try to do both, but they are at their best when they are embracing the latter.

While there are occasional echoes of Stephen King (the title story), Barron is primarily a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft. Weird, unknowable horror. Unfathomable, ancient entities breaking our protagonists minds. Terrible, ominous wilderness. It works, sometimes; there is occasional piercing, stomach dropping visuals, like a woman opening her closet and seeing saggy skin corpses hanging amongst her clothes. Or the creepy whispering one protagonist hears, late at night, floating up from the vents in his apartment:

Intestines. Kidneys.
Ohh, either is delectable.
And sweetbreads. As long as they’re from a young one.
Ganglia for me. Or brain. Scoop it our quivering.
Enough! Let’s start tonight. We’ll take one from—

Other times it’s a little too campy. Anyone not named Lovecraft using the word ‘cyclopean’ in a horror short comes off as a bit of a poser. And sometimes the darkness comes off as a murky adjective soup that is barely comprehensible, let alone scary:

(group of hikers finds a mysterious cave with a pool of water in the center, described in the quote below)

The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark. A thumbnail-sized alabaster planetoid blazed beneath the ruptured skein of leaves and algae, a membranous cloud rising.The cloud seethed and darkened, became black as a thunderhead. It keened–chains dragging against iron, a theremin dialed to eleven, a hypersonic shriek that somehow originated and emanated from inside my brain rather than an external source. Whispers drifted from the abyss, unsynchronized, unintelligible, yet conveying malevolent and obscene lust that radiated across the vast wastes of deep space. The cloud peeled, bloomed, and a hundred-thousand-miles-long tendril uncoiled, a proboscis telescoping from the central mass, and the whispers amplified in a burst of static.


This is only an excerpt; it goes on. Slothful splay indeed.

These stories occasionally have way too much backstory or don’t know when to end. A great example is my favorite story of the collection, Strappado, about a group of people going to investigate some edgy, modern performance art. It unfolds rapidly, chills, and leaves a disturbing impression in its wake. The people involved absolutely don’t matter. So the 3-4 page leadup introducing the main character and his relationship with his on and off boyfriend is a totally cutt-able bore. It probably could have ended a page or two earlier too — an image of a man trying to slice his wrists with a cut-up credit card, failing, and calling the cleaners was all it needed.

These stories were written individually and arranged in a collection later — this causes an issue that would never have occurred if I was reading them as one-offs. Namely, they start to feel a bit samey. The characters fall into a few (wealthy) types. Everyone smokes*. The wilderness of Washington state is thoroughly plumbed. I found myself saying, satanists, occultists, again? And after the Nth time it happened, I wanted to alert Laird Barron that not all stories need to end with the protag succumbing to madness or ripping off the zipper on his human suit. Sometimes watching our mangled hero scrabble to escape is the far scarier experience, whether he/she makes it or not.

The sum is lesser than its parts, though. I feel this review is too negative for the generally positive outlook I have of this book. 7 of 9 of these stories are solid, good reads.


*This book feels really old. I have a beat up used copy with a cheesy 90s cover. Everyone smokes cigarettes or has dusty old cars. Satanism is an earnest, not laughable, fear. So I always felt sort of confused when the book mentioned recent events like the recession or prop 8. The book was published in 2010 and this edition in 2014!

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Lunch With a Bigot: The Writer in the World by Amitava Kumar

lunch with a bigotReading and writing are a major topic of exploration in these essays. Kumar is an advocate of writing as an expression of the real, a way to decipher and interpret the everyday — politics, identity, culture — the sacred role of fiction in making palpable these essential things. The well known strategy of the writer infusing their personal experiences and family character into the plot.

He also determines economy of language as required. Short, direct sentences. Avoidance of adverbs, overuse of adjectives, all flowery language whatsoever. Carver, Hemingway, Roth, Naipaul*. I enjoy most of the named writers and styles. Certainly I love many books determined to translate ‘the real’. Yet, I’m utterly baffled whenever anyone makes grandiose declarations of what literature should ultimately be.

I mean when I hear anyone anyone, not just this writer, say something along the lines of:

  • Writing should be a translation of real life, serious in aim, and high in pursuit.
  • Never write anything that doesn’t directly serve the story; no diversions.
  • Vampires / magic / future technology should be done in this way. (it happens in all genres)
  • Never use two words when one would do (and don’t tell Proust!).

To that I say: literature can be a million different things! Many of them good! Use ornate language even if it isn’t strictly necessary! Divert away, so long as it is interesting! Adverbs surely aren’t always so bad.

It’s this hardline notion more than anything else that makes me unlikely to read Amitava Kumar’s fiction, or of many lit critics who espouse similar. But what he does excel at is journalistic concerns — recording public events, interviewing ‘common’ people, conducting talks with filmmakers and writers. There’s some really insightful pieces here. I’ve added Indian films to my to-watch list that I would never have heard of otherwise.

Kumar does an excellent job of translating the presence and importance of great writers to the page. And also less known personages, like a muslim taxi driver who was assaulted after the Boston bombings. The words of the bigot of the title — a Hindu radical who hates and dehumanizes muslims — are chilling and well recorded, and show that extreme right wing rhetoric is basically the same everywhere, no matter how applied. And it is Arundhati Roy’s line, in an interview with Kumar, about using court injunctions as napkins that sticks with me after finishing this book.

*Kumar names some other Indian writers too, but having not read them, I can’t recite from memory. With a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of writers namedropped are men.

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Inherent Vice (2014 film)

ivWhoa. This movie was really good.

Knowing this was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel and seeing the reviews most cunningly coin it ‘incoherent vice’, I was expecting an aesthetically pleasing albeit nonsensical stoner tale. Instead I viewed a hilarious, surprisingly linear romp through a hazy 70s neo noir Las Angeles. Indeed, even a plot that made sense… sort of… eventually.

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a private investigator on the trail of a missing land developer, bumbles from one outlandish clue to the next, unveiling police corruption, lost loves, rehab clinic conspiracies, and a mysterious entity called ‘The Golden Fang’, which could be a boat or a cocaine cartel or a dentists consortium. There’s copious amounts of drugs and sex, but the film does not devolve into going ‘Isn’t the 70s funny? Ha Ha’. Though if Doc isn’t sucking on an oxygen mask, he’s bending backwards over a table to snort some high-grade coke.

Presented almost as a series of vignettes, each ‘clue’ involves Doc, undoubtedly high on something, investigating everyone from double agent Owen Wilson, to coke fiend dentist Martin Short, to crazed & corrupt LAPD cop and failed tv star Josh Brolin (a flawless, hilarious, somewhat disturbing performance). Each segment reveals some new tidbit to the overarching plot, or some heretofore unknown quirk or connection between parties. I was halfway expecting this to go nowhere, to end in a puff of grassy smoke, potential resolutions swirling away up into the atmosphere.

I also realized I could have watched Doc bound from scene to scene, literally all night.

The casting is superb. Joaquin Phoenix is sublime as Doc, the bumbling but sort of lovable hero, who owes no small debt to The Dude of The Big Lebowski fame. It feels like all of the rest of the big name actors belong more to the neo-noir world of 1970 than they do to their own present. Plenty of 70s movies have a habit of haphazardly dressing people up in bright colored hippie costumes. The period dress of Inherent Vice is colorful, but actually adheres to a style people conceivably enjoyed and wore. The desaturated color of fictional Gordita Beach paired with the impeccable soundtrack encapsulate the setting perfectly, and leave the viewer yearning for that sleepy beach bum lifestyle. At least for a while.

The meaning of the title is revealed via monologue late in the movie. ‘Inherent vice’ is an old shipping term, a label for cargo that is uninsurable due to its volatile and fragile nature — eggs for instance. It’s low hanging metaphorical fruit to extend this to the cast, to 70s America at large. But this is a fond, forgivable kind of vice. The movie warmly treats its cast, even its most degenerate goons. While I haven’t read the novel, I’ve read other Pynchon books and would have thought them nigh-unfilmable. Paul Thomas Anderson not only succeeded, but made one of those movies that I knew, before it even ended, would become an instant favorite.

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As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

asmeatlovessaltThe back of this book claims it to be a psychological thriller about a 17th century englishman, enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s army, who falls in love with a fellow soldier.

This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it’s such a small piece of a dense 600 page brick. Thus I endeavor to better describe the pieces that comprise As Meat Loves Salt.

 

The Servant

We are introduced to our brutish (both physically and morally) first-person hero, Jacob Cullen, while he is dragging a pond in search of a drowned corpse. It is immediately apparent by Jacob’s apprehension that he had something to do with that corpse attaining its present state, lying in the muck at the bottom of a pond. Chronicling the day to day of the servants to a minor lordship, this part of the book is heavy with foreboding. Not least of all because it takes place amidst the calm of indentured servitude, spent polishing silverware and beating rugs, while our protagonist pines after his betrothed (a woman); this, when the reader is certain things must go south, having read the back of the book and its tales of war and romantic soldierly love. On top of this, Jacob Cullen is a guilty, anxious man. A peevish ogre, quick to anger and jealously paranoid. And when everything comes to a head, when his true colors show, the events are even worse than I had imaged. McCann has a knack for describing the violently terrible, in all its wet detail.

But I was afflicted with an ugliness of the soul that no physick could correct

 

The Soldier

Following Jacob’s expansive display of ugliness, he is thrust into the English Civil War. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition — Jacob Cullen, murderer, rapist, all-around shitbag, ends up looking damn near angelic by comparison to the horrific atrocities committed by the army upon those they conquer and pillage. Partly because we can say at least Jacob feels bad after, when he does something outstandingly terrible.

And feel bad he does. Jacob spends much of his time pondering his own damnation, begging forgiveness, making grand plans for restitution. Devout Jacob’s imagination portrays a vivid depiction of Hell, all aflame and in torment. He’s also a wonderful moper. This goes on until his anger gets the better of him once more and he starts bashing a man’s head into a table at the slightest provocation. Then he starts anew. Did I mention he has a Voice in his head, speaking in biblical liturgy, alternating between being his dead father or the devil, commanding him to do ill to his fellows?

 

London

In the army, Jacob meets Christopher Ferris, his eventual lover, and deserts to the latter’s house in London. This section is long; interminable. It drags.

Up until the London episode, reading this novel was akin to being locked in a room with rabid dogs, only to escape and find yourself in a room of rabid wolves. It was incredibly upsetting, unsettling, arresting. I turned pages in fear of what Jacob would do next. There was periods of anxious quiet punctuated by clamorous strings of violent, appalling action. This all committed by a first person narrator, making all manner of excuses for his actions.

Now the pace slows, the love story picks up. Jacob doesn’t so much as love as possess; the gender of his object of ownership is irrelevant. He yearns, he isolates, he loves, his wrath destroys. The fact that this part of the novel goes on so long is the great weakness of As Meat Loves Salt. We know this man is capable of the very worst — hundreds of pages of tranquil setup is much too much.

 

Swords into ploughshares

Drunk on the self determination ideology of the time, Ferris assembles a group of bright-eyed malcontents and sets off to a common green space to establish a farm community. Though loath to leave London, Jacob begrudgingly follows his lover. The ominous tone of the early chapters returns, and a grain-based doomsday clock builds to Armageddon.

And I craved it. I wanted Jacob’s Bad Angel to return because I was bored of the meandering pace of the London chapters. As the narrative scythe prepared its reaping, I realized this book is at its best, it’s most gripping, only when The Worst Possible Things are happening. It’s when a militiaman is violently throwing a newborn to the ground, that I can say this, this is when As Meat Loves Salt is at its best, my stomach rolling all the while.

This book is superbly written. The period dialogue is so effective, I could hear the characters speak, and at times I felt I could fain converse in kind. Even though I ultimately found the entire package only a few notches above okay, I will miss McCann’s handle on prose. It’s alternately beautiful and diabolic.

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Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

acrNarratives in video games face an intractable problem: the story can find itself in conflict with the gameplay, and will always take a back seat to the profit margin.

The framing device of the Assassins Creed series is this: The Assassin Brotherhood and the Knights Templar have been fighting a secret war across history for thousands of years — basically forever. The Assassins are anarcho-libertines, their creed is literally “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and they promote individual freedom and self determination above all else, consequences be damned. The Templar are pro-authoritarianism, claiming humanity is too weak and self destructive to continue to survive without a guiding hand. Marco Polo was an assassin. The Medicis were templars.

In the present day, a shady pharmaceutical company has designed a machine that allows you to plug in and live the memories of your ancestors. Thus, we can stick NYC bartender Desmond Miles into the machine and he can re-live all the lives of his assassin ancestors. I forget exactly why we’re doing this, but something about the information recovered in the past will allow the aforementioned shady pharmaceutical company to do something Really Bad.

The very first game has Desmond reliving the life of Altair Ibn La’Ahad, a Syrian assassin living in the time of the First Crusade. When it was released, the critics griped about the gameplay being repetitive (it was), the brooding main character dull (he was), and that the story was weak (it was). Yet, I found it profoundly COOL. Running around the Holy Land — Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre — in the middle of the crusades (on the Arab side no less), hunting down armored, clanking templars and leaping off buildings to gasps from the crowd below. It was great! I realized what would be the enduring appeal of the entire franchise: historical tourism. Can’t get enough of it. Show me all the cities.

In the follow-up, time shifted to Renaissance Italy and the ancestor Desmond now locked into was the highly charismatic Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio was about ten thousand times more compelling than Altair; the game time skips through his life, from teenage years to fortyish. To make up for the repetitive complaints of the first game, the gameplay and missions structure was greatly varied and enhanced, though I did find it adhered a little too closely to the modern gameplay trend of leading the player from one map beacon to the next and then exhibiting set pieces via cutscenes. But, whatever, I got to run around the rooftops of Florence and Venice! Ride a horse around the hills of Tuscany! Own a fancy Villa!

The supernatural elements supremely ramped up in this installment and it ends with Ezio busting into a secret room in Vatican (right after he engaged the pope in fisticuffs; seriously) and coming face to face with none other than the Roman goddess, Minerva. Minerva then speaks directly to Desmond (remember, that’s the guy in the high tech machine in modern day) to Ezio’s total confusion. It was actually a pretty cool narrative device. The threat is SO BIG that it crisscrosses centuries and this entire dude’s life/video game culminated in just getting a brief message across time to Desmond in 2011 or whenever it is.

But, then, OK, here’s where the video game narrative issue comes in. Ezio’s story was clearly supposed to end here. He goes on to live his life, no longer important to the plot and never knowing what the hell happened. But because this is a video game, and because, well capitalism, Ubisoft released another game the following year.

Entitled Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, we returned to Ezio, who gallivanted off to Rome for dubious narrative goals. The controls were tightened and honed, new features were added, you got to train up a whole cadre of assassins — the gameplay was just all around better. And yes, Ezio’s character arc was already complete, but they recast him as a teacher of others, and more importantly, embroiled him right into the plot of The Borgias.

Yeah. So incase you didn’t pick this up in history class, the Borgias were secret templar and Cesare himself was actually killed by one Ezio Auditore. Anyway, it worked. Cesare was a great villain and I actually bought a Borgia history book due to this game. It is still on my shelf and I swear I’ll read it some day. The framing story took a nosedive, sort of treading water since this game was unplanned, and inexplicably killing off a major character who totally wasn’t supposed to die yet*.

But, as I am sure you can tell by the title of this post, it didn’t end there. Ubisoft released yet another Ezio game. This time he’s old and running around Constantinople… for, uh… reasons. The gameplay really couldn’t go much further at this point — there’s ill-conceived add-ons like tower defense and bomb crafting. Nothing left to squeeze out of Ezio’s character either. There’s flashbacks to Altair that let you re-live scenes the game has already summarized for you in previous games. Faced with yet another unplanned episode, the writers had completely stalled on Desmond’s story and the framing device barely even exists in Revelations. Yet, yet, yet the game is still fun. And Constantinople! Climbing the Hagia Sophia! Visiting the volcanic region of Cappadocia! People calling me Effendi like when I read My Name is Red!

You might wonder wonder why I’m spending all this time summarizing a story that wasn’t even good in the first place. And honestly, 1000 words in, I’m wondering too. But it illustrates a fine point. The story was stalled and hacked apart and I just can’t see it recovering in the next game, but this led to the creation of one great game and one pretty good game. I got to swing around the coliseum in Renaissance Rome and chase fools through the Great Bazaar in Constantinople a few years later. And of course, a giant corporation made millions of dollars. How can you argue that?

 

And yeah, yeah, I know I’m like several AC games behind but I plan to catch up.

 

*So here’s what happened. The character in question, Lucy, was voiced and had the likeness of Kristen Bell. Bell decided she didn’t want to do it anymore, so like the TV shows where a main character suddenly dies when it clearly wasn’t time yet — see Battlestar Galactica, Sliders, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers… – they just bizarrely and disorientingly killed her off!

Responding to fan complaints, Ubisoft released paid extra content where her death is explained (she was a TRAITOR!!), but since they still didn’t have Bell on staff, she only communicates through email. Haha.

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